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Interview Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend, IN), Presidential Candidate; Whistle-Blower Complaint Held Back; WAPO: Trump's Promise To Foreign Language Leader Sparked Alarm; New Intel IG Letter Sounds Alarm, Trump Admin Stopping Him From Doing His Job. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 19, 2019 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The deepening mystery of the intelligence community whistle-blower.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: The inspector general of the U.S. intelligence community is sounding the alarm today, saying the Trump administration is keeping him from doing his job and preventing him from sharing a serious whistle-blower complaint about the president with Congress.

Dangerous drumbeater. Iran wars of all-out war. As President Trump weighs an attack, how would a President Pete handle this crisis? Afghanistan veteran and 2020 candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg weighs in this hour.

Also breaking today, the Canadian prime minister apologizing again after a new image shows him in dark makeup, the third such racist incident. Could this mean curtains for North America's wokest leader?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we begin today with breaking news in the politics lead, an alarm being sounded today by the inspector general of the U.S. intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, saying that the acting director of national intelligence is keeping him from executing two of his most important duties and responsibilities.

The White House, Justice Department and the acting director of national intelligence have blocked Atkinson from sharing with Congress details of a whistle-blower complaint which could involve communications between President Trump and a foreign leader, according to three sources.

Today, President Trump dismissed the idea that he did anything wrong.

CNN's Alex Marquardt kicks off our coverage.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): It's a deadlock over an unseen, potentially explosive complaint by a member of the intelligence community about the president, that, in communications between a foreign leader and President Trump, he, according to "The Washington Post," had made that leader a promise.

What he allegedly promised is unknown, as is who the foreign leader was. But it was enough of a blockbuster claim for the intelligence community inspector general to feel forced to go to Congress, claiming the whistle-blower complaint is being blocked by the White House, the Department of Justice, and the Office of Director of National Intelligence, because they believe it's not an intelligence matter.

In a letter to the House Intelligence Committee, the inspector general writes that the complaint "not only falls within the DNI's jurisdiction, but relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI responsibilities to the American people."

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): That whole purpose is being frustrated here because the director of national intelligence has made the unprecedented decision not to share the complaint with Congress.

MARQUARDT: The lawyer for acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire argues: "The complaint here involves confidential and potentially privileged matters relating to the interests of other stakeholders within the executive branch."

Sources tell CNN it was the White House and the Department of Justice that told Maguire that he doesn't have jurisdiction. Today, when the I.G. spoke to the House Intelligence Committee, he didn't provide any details about the whistle-blower's complaint, hamstrung, the chairman said, by someone trying to manipulate the system.

SCHIFF: We can't get an answer because the Department of Justice and the director of national intelligence will not authorize the I.G. to tell us. And the inspector general is doing his very best to be very careful that he follow the law.

MARQUARDT: The complaint was filed on August 12, just days before then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, as well as his deputy, Sue Gordon, were pushed out by the president on August 15.

It was also after the president had communicated with a number of world leaders in the previous weeks, including the president of Ukraine, the prime minister of Israel, the dictator of North Korea, the emir of Qatar, and the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin.


MARQUARDT: Acting DNI Joseph Maguire is really walking a tightrope here, Jake.

On the one hand, he's got a complaint from someone in his own intelligence community. On the other, it's about his boss, the president. Maguire had refused to appear today in front of the House Intelligence Committee, but he is now due to testify to both House and Senate Intel Committees next week -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

I want to go now to CNN's Pamela Brown, who broke the story of the White House and the Department of Justice also advising the DNI, the director of national intelligence, not to share the complaint with Congress.

Pamela, are they providing any explanation for their involvement in this?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The White House is not providing any explanation or comment at this point.

But what we have learned from sources familiar, Jake, is that the White House Counsel's Office has been in discussions with DOJ, as well as ODNI and so far the refusal to turn over the complaint information to Capitol Hill.

Now, the White House and DOJ have a advised ODNI that this controversial complaint is outside the scope of intelligence communities that would be protected under law.


And we know that ODNI has told the committee from the general counsel of ODNI that essentially it's not an urgent matter under law and that there could be privileged communications.

That's where the White House would come in, because we know from a source familiar that the president -- this involves, in one instance, the president's conversation with a foreign leader.

So it's not surprising that the White House would want to weigh in on whether there is an executive privilege issue here. But what makes this so unique, Jake, is, of course, the fact that this is a whistle- blower complaint under the law. That is what makes this so unprecedented in many ways.

And we know the White House counsel's stance on sharing foreign leader communications with the president so far is to not share that with Congress. That happened in March. As you will recall, Congress wanted information on the president's talks with Vladimir Putin, and the White House said longstanding precedent blocks that information from being handed over.

TAPPER: Pamela, you have some more reporting about instances where foreign leaders have made requests of President Trump.

BROWN: That's right.

I have been trying to get a better idea of Trump's conversations with foreign leaders. And an administration official tells me that there will be during some conversations with foreign leaders outlandish requests made as it has to do with policy or perhaps the need for U.S. help for a certain individual or entity. And the president will often say, I'll have my people look into it.

That doesn't necessarily mean he's going to actually have that happen. Sometimes, it's the president's way of blowing it off. In one such case, a foreign leader asked the president to look into a DOJ indictment of a state-owned entity. The president said he would look into it. Ultimately, nothing was ever done.

And in terms of his conversations with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, sources say that the president has been much more cautious in talking to Putin and making any sort of offers of assistance or promises ever since the classified -- the fact that he shared classified information with Russians in the Oval Office leaked out a while ago -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown, thanks so much.

Let's bring in our experts, Asha Rangappa and Carrie Cordero.

Asha, let me start with you.

The inspector general here really seems to be sounding the alarm in this letter to the House Intelligence Committee. How do you interpret it?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, I think we essentially see the I.G. acting as a whistle-blower himself in this case.

So you have a whistle-blower who went to the I.G., and now that I.G. is being blocked from giving this to Congress, so he's kind of sounding the alarm, as you said.

It's an unprecedented situation, because it is simply not in compliance with the law. But, of course, he has to be very careful. He can't kind of blab the contents of this complaint himself to Congress, because then he might run afoul of the law.

So I think he's walking a tightrope. But it is really in his purview to make sure that this gets to Congress, and he's being prevented from doing that by the DNI. By the way, that I.G. is a Trump appointee. And I think it's important to note that as well.

TAPPER: Indeed.

And, Carrie, if these communications involve the president, are they covered by privileged, as the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel seems to be arguing, and therefore not a matter for the intelligence community? That seems to be the administration's argument.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the administration, I think, is making a few different arguments.

And they're kind of throwing out different arguments. And it's kind of unclear exactly which ones really would stick. So they're saying privilege. They're not saying what kind of privilege, executive privilege, attorney-client privilege. So it's unclear what kind of privilege would exist.

They're also throwing out confidential information. But these are the Intelligence Committees, so they're actually allowed to receive classified information. So that's not a legitimate basis to withhold the information.

The other argument that the administration seems to be making is that it simply is about a subject matter that doesn't fall under the authority of the director of national intelligence. And that's where the really substantive disagreement exists between the intelligence community inspector general and the acting DNI and the administration.

And the I.G.'s letter was very strong. I haven't seen a letter from an inspector general I.C. like the one that came out today. He is putting as much information in these public letters as he can to indicate that he so strongly disagrees with the judgment that's being made by the administration.

TAPPER: And, Asha, critics of the Trump administration have argued this is clearly an effort to protect the president and block Congress from performing its responsibility to conduct oversight.

Do you agree with that?

RANGAPPA: It certainly seems like it.

I mean, this is -- there is no question that there has been a violation of the law in terms of the DNI taking on this veto power. What I suspect is happening behind the scenes, even though it's not being explicitly stated in this letter, we know that the DNI went to the OLC at the Department of Justice to get an opinion.

And I suspect that they are hanging their hat on a constitutional argument that the president has a certain shield of secrecy in his communications with foreign leaders. That kind of diplomatic executive privilege goes back to George Washington.

So he wouldn't be the first one to make it. And the idea is that he should be able to have these confidential communications in order to pursue his foreign policy and foreign affairs.


I think the question is, when does that come up against Congress' oversight authority, when he may be using his foreign affairs powers for -- to abuse the law or for personal gain or something like that?

TAPPER: If a president -- let's just remove Trump from it for a second. If a president were on -- were overheard by somebody in intelligence communities doing something illegal, like, hey, strongman X, I won't have better relationships with you guys, do this favor for me, this political favor for me, or this financial favor for me, and we will have better relations, and the intelligence community individual, this officer, overhears it, what is the proper step to do if he or she thinks that the president, this hypothetical presidential, broke the law?

CORDERO: Well, so first of all, if it wasn't the president, it would be very straightforward. And they would be able to file what's called a crimes report.

So, intelligence community personnel, if they in the course of their work hear something that's violation of the crime, there's a process that they go through to make a report to the Department of Justice.

If it's the president, it falls into a different category. And, really, the only accountability that the president has is from another branch of government, because he can't be indicted, because he's not going to be investigated by the Justice Department for something like that.

So the channel that the intelligence community professional has to go through is the inspector general to congressional Intelligence Committees. And this is the way -- this person, whoever they are in the community, they're trying to do this the right way.

And I think that's so important, because sometimes, when we think about whistle-blowers, people who report things to the media, or otherwise release things in an undisclosed way. This person tried to follow the rules. They went to the I.G. There's a channel for the I.G. to report back to Congress.

TAPPER: Right. And the Trump administration is saying, this financial crime, this -- the political crime, whatever, in this hypothetical thing doesn't fall in the intelligence purview.

CORDERO: Whatever is the subject matter that is the current dispute, which we don't have all the facts regarding what this current thing is.


CORDERO: But whatever would be the dispute, the channel is to go to Congress, because Congress is the one that is supposed to hold the president accountable.

Otherwise, there's absolutely no accountability for a president.

TAPPER: Interesting.

We're going to zero in on the president's communication that might be in question coming up next.

Plus, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking yet again today for wearing blackface -- how he's addressing new images, amid his reelection campaign, which is coming up.



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back with another unbelievable day of breaking news. The alleged communication made by President Trump to a foreign leader that prompted a, quote, credible and urgent whistleblower complaint, according to three sources. The Intelligence Community Inspector General is now sounding the alarm, saying that he is at an impasse with the Director of National Intelligence, who is refusing to turn over the contents of that whistleblower complaint to Congress.

Let's chew overall of this. Seung Min, let me start with you. "The Washington Post" is reporting miscommunication about a promise that Trump made to a foreign leader and that White House records showed Trump had spoken to or interacted with at least five foreign leaders in the five week before this complaint. Putin from Russia, Kim Jong- un from North Korea, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Emir of Qatar. Although it's not clear which communication, if any of those five this had anything to do it, because they're completely opaque. They do not share the communications they have with foreign leaders.

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: That's correct. And obviously there are many options right there and perhaps others that this promise that we don't know what it is and with which foreign leader it was. But what this whole episode shows, one of many things that it shows, is just how little we know about this President's communications with foreign leaders, whether it comes in a phone call, reported in "The Washington Post" last night that this happened or whether it's in this in a one-on-one meetings with foreign leaders.

I mean, we were -- there was an out nearly hour-long meeting with Kim Jong-un and Trump at the DMZ that we don't really still have the details of. You know, Democrats were so incensed and concerned about what may have happened between Putin and Trump in Helsinki that they were contemplating subpoena in the interpreter in that meeting.

And you make such a good point about the calls. You know, the White House hasn't made it a really regular practice of reading out these calls. Very often times we actually find out these calls happen from the other country. One of the calls you just referenced, the July 31st call, I believe that was first -- we first heard about it from the Russians and once we do get these readouts, the readouts are pretty short, pretty perfunctory, still really a lot that we don't know about the calls.

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEST: And it puts the American people at the mercy of foreign governments to know what happened in this cause.

TAPPER: State media.

KUCINICH: State media, exactly. So the fact that there's a readout there, OK, fine, but it's not from the United States. It's from, perhaps, an adversary.

MEHDI HASAN, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR, THE INTERCEPT: Judging by this White House's records it's probably more accurate if it doesn't come from this White House, the readout. But they have cut down on the readouts. It is obsessed not even the official calls. Remember, Trump went round and handed out his personal cell phone number to our leaders. Justin Trudeau called him up to discuss tariffs and he didn't tell any of his aides that he had chatted with the Prime Minister of Canada on his personal cell phone until the Canadians released they have for the coalition (ph).


He, I mean, to say Trump has a problem with discretion is epic understand (ph). This guy runs his mouth in all ways he shouldn't. He handed over classified intel to the Russian foreign minister about ISIS the day of 3/5, Jim Comey. Now he's on Twitter today, why would I have to say when people are watching. Why would I have -- he's done it before. He did it yesterday at the border. A general had to tell him to shut up.

TAPPER: About the surveillance information.

HASAN: He said, sir, maybe (INAUDIBLE) not discussing. He did it in front of our eyes yesterday. I'm not sure why he's tweeting today that he doesn't do this stuff.

MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO JEB BUSH: There's a lot of not great options on that list, that list of world leaders that you thought. I'm sort of hoping it was another one, right? Like I don't know what he could have done that would have been that bad with them. Everyone else on that list is not great.

TAPPER: Yes. No. And Ukraine also, he spoken to them. A lot of people are also, Seung Min, pointing to the personnel shuffles that happened during the time in this complaint. The President pushed out the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, installed a new Acting Director, Joseph Maguire. There's also the Deputy, Susan Gordon -- yes, who he basically pushed out as well. We don't know if it's tied to this or not.

KIM: We don't know if it's tied to this or not but there's no question that the issue of the Intel Community versus the President has become such a political issues. And one of the people that you left out in that conversation was the person that the President initially contemplated to replace Dan Coats, it was John Ratcliffe, he is a House Republican. You know, respected in the House Republican conference but did not have the intel credentials seen as a very partisan warrior. And for a position that supposed to be very -- probably the most nonpartisan of all. So it's just this constant struggle that we're seeing escalate between all those factors right now.

TAPPER: And with the struggle that we're not seeing, Mehdi, is normally the House and Senate are pushing back and saying we're supposed to do oversight with the President. The Democrats are trying to do that. We haven't heard anything from the Republican leaders --

HASAN: Surprise.

TAPPER: -- about any of these.

HASAN: Surprise.

TAPPER: But it's their job to know because that's the oversight.

HASAN: In the old days if there is such as thing as the old days, on issues of at least of intelligence and national security, you would have, you know, no real blue water between the two parties. But now even on intelligence issues, the Republicans see everything as a deep state conspiracy and it's only a matter of time until this whistleblower is called a deep state agent trying to take out the President.

By the way, the acting role of DNI is a problem. We know Trump likes to put everyone in as acting because then he can steam roll them.

TAPPER: He control them or not.

STEELE: And House and Senate Republicans are not going to be interested in investigating this and House Democrats have been pretty inept thus far at holding these things up to the light and drawing attention to things that the President has done.

KUCINICH: I'll be interested though to see what comes out of Senate intel. I think they're being briefed next week on this. Because it seems like Warner and Burr have had a much better relationship than we've seen on the other side.

TAPPER: Absolutely. Everyone stick around, we've got more to talk about.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a background in intelligence from his days in the military. We're going to get his take on this next mystery case next.



TAPPER: And we're back with breaking news. The Inspector General of the national Intelligence Community sounding the alarm today in a letter claiming that members of the Trump administration are preventing him from doing his job when it comes to a whistleblower's complaint involving President Trump. CNN has learned from free sources that the complaint could involve communications between President Trump and a foreign leader.

Joining me now is Democratic Presidential Candidate and the Mayor of South Bend Indiana, Pete Buttigieg. Mayor Buttigieg, thanks for joining us. So a letter was just released from the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community to the leaders of the House Intelligence Community. He's essentially saying in the letter that he has a complaint from a whistleblower that he wants to share with them, the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, but the Acting Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department are blocking him from bringing it to these congressional leaders. What's your response? MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My response is that muzzling the Inspector General's independence is the exact wrong direction for this administration to take. Look, in this country, Congress has oversight of the executive branch in order to prevent abuses. The whole idea of an independent Inspector General and a whistleblower function is to make sure that when some kind of abuse is observed or suspected, it can get addressed. And the Inspector General has a duty to bring this to Congress.

First of all, it raises the question of what exactly is it that they don't want Congress to find out? Secondly, it shows that they have no respect for the process. Remember, we're talking about an Intelligence Committee where all of the members have clearances and, frankly, a much better track record of handling classified and sensitive information than the President and the administration do. They should be given a chance to do their job, evaluate whatever it is that created this, quote, unquote, urge enter concern and determine what steps are needed in order to keep America safe.

TAPPER: The White House would theoretically push back and I'm sure they would argue, look, President Trump is allowed to have private, confidential conversations with foreign leaders in order to do his job and people aren't allowed to just share that classified information.

BUTTIGIEG: This, again, is not about making classified information public. This is about sharing it with an oversight body, with security clearances, whose very job is to make sure that the President and the administration are acting in the interest of the American people. I don't know what it is they're hiding. I don't know why they're afraid to just defend this within the congressional committee, but it certainly -